Traitor

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Underrated Traitors may be evaluated for their effectiveness or for their odiousness. By the first criterion, the most underrated traitor in American history (if he existed) did his work before there was a United States. Gen. James Wolfe’s efforts to take the French citadel of Quebec in 1759 went nowhere until he found a path to the Plains of Abraham outside the town’s gates. Did he thank his eagle eyes or, as recent military historians believe, some unknown helpful malcontent? If the latter is true, that pathfinder changed history. The short battle on the Plains ended French power in North America and, by removing a common enemy, made the American Revolution all but inevitable.

Overrated What traitor is overrated by the second criterion? That is, whose odiousness is not sufficiently acknowledged? Alger Hiss has fewer and fewer defenders. His guilt, adequately proven by his second trial, was meticulously confirmed by Allen Weinstein ( Perjury ) and Sam Tanenhaus ( Whittaker Chambers ). But for those still out there, let’s give the rat another swat. This sleek WASP bureaucrat labored in the service of Stalin, then spent the second half of his life lying about it. The Soviet Union finally fell, so he was a failure too. Rest in ignominy.

—Richard Brookhiser’s most recent book is America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 .